The Story of Dr. Ernest Hand

Physician. Surgeon. Obstetrician. First responder. Ambulance driver. Back in the day, Dr. Ernest Hand did it all.

Baby arriving? He’d come to your home for the delivery. Had a hunting accident out in the wilderness? He’d fight his way through the roughest territory to get to your side and render aid. Need an ambulance? He’d tote you piggyback out to his own Lincoln automobile, and then race for the hospital at Carson or Reno – with no regard for posted speed limits. “Not to worry,” he’d say. “I used to be a race car driver.”

Dr. Hand and his wife, Eleanor, arrived in Gardnerville in December, 1934, the year they were married. And for the next 23 years Dr. Hand would render expert, compassionate care to everyone in town, regardless of race, creed, color, or ability to pay.

Dr. Hand’s two-story residence on Douglas Avenue. It’s said the good doctor helped build it with his own hands.

Born in Pennsylvania June 8, 1886, Dr. Hand put himself through Baltimore Medical College by working as a linotype operator for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. He began his medical career in New York in 1909, alternating private practice with a stint as an in-house physician for a company with 75,000 employees. He honed his medical skills in both urology and dermatology. Perhaps more important for his future career, he also delivered some 5,000 babies – experience that would later prove invaluable when he arrived in Carson Valley.

The good doctor not only loved medicine, he loved carpentry too. An excellent cabinet-maker, he helped build his own house on Douglas Avenue and crafted cabinets for his medical office. He also loved animals and gardening. In his off-hours (few as those were) he lovingly tended a garden and fruit trees by his home. He’d can and preserve the fruits and vegetable he grew, too.

And oh, his work ethic! From 7 to 8 a.m. every morning Dr. Hand’s waiting room would be jammed with drop-in patients – no appointments needed. His office was right on Main Street, just north of the Overland, where “Restyle” stands today. He’d treat everything from sniffles to gunshot wounds right there in his office. He made the drive nearly every day to Carson City and Reno to check on his patients in the hospital. And he also served as county health officer for both Douglas and Alpine Counties.

Many Carson Valley residents still remember Dr. Hand fondly. “He was a happy ol’ guy — he looked like Santa Claus,” remembers one long-time local boy. “He had a belly, and white hair and glasses. He was very kind. And he would talk to you. One time as a kid I had pains every morning and my mom thought I just didn’t want to go to school. But there really was something wrong, and he figured it out.”

Dr. Hand, circa 1950, with a pocket full of pens. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society).

“He was kinda like a miracle worker; it was like he had 48 hours in the day, not 24,” recalls another former patient. “Even after normal office hours, he’d go out and make house calls. And he’d still have just as much interest in you. It didn’t matter how late he’d been up the night before.”

Medical care would often be simple but effective. “I fell once as a boy and broke my arm,” one local still remembers. “Dr. Hand came up to the house and he just pulled on it to set it. You didn’t get pain shots for every little thing back then.”

Newspaper reports provide a snapshot of the wide variety of ailments Dr. Hand was called upon to attend. He cared for the victim of a logging accident with major spinal injuries. He trekked six miles into the hills outside Markleeville to render aid to a teenager whose leg bone was shattered in a hunting accident. He administered polio shots to local school children, and treated a road worker with severe burns after his oil-stained clothes had caught on fire. And when floods closed local roads and prevented a pregnant military wife from reaching the base hospital in Hawthorne, Dr. Hand came to her home for the delivery – despite getting the call just hours before the baby arrived.

Dr. Hand was credited with delivering more than 500 children during his 23 years of practice in and around Gardnerville. (Image courtesy of TheGraphicsFairy.com).

Those who knew the good doctor still shrug and smile about his lead-footed driving. “I rode with him once for a trip to the hospital – he said he’d used to be a race car driver, but he was still a race car driver!” grins one former patient. “He would blow the wheels off that car!” confirms another.

As luck would have it, it was the doctor’s own speedy driving that once led to a special kind of cure. A young child had gotten a small whistle stuck in his throat and Dr. Hand was, as usual, putting pedal to the metal to get the boy to the hospital for an operation. Suddenly another car cut in front of them. Dr. Hand slammed on his brakes and threw out his arm protectively to keep the young boy from falling forward. Lo and behold, that sudden jolt was just what the doctor ordered. The whistle was dislodged – and no operation was required!

In 1950, Dr. Hand was lauded for his years of work by a grateful community. Donations totaling $1,000 had been taken up – enough to pay for a new incubator and a hospital room at Carson-Tahoe Hospital in honor of Dr. Hand. The doctor’s wife, too, received special thanks from the community for her “untiring assistance” to her husband – and no doubt her patience with years of middle-of-the-night emergency phone calls. The community’s tribute came as a complete surprise to Dr. Hand. He was, as he put it, “too full for words.”

Dr. Hand passed away on December 27, 1957 of a sudden heart attack, at the age of 71. He’d tended patients here in Carson Valley for 23 years. More than 800 mourners turned out to pay their respects at his funeral at Carson City’s civic auditorium. He was laid to rest at first in Lone Mountain Cemetery – but it wasn’t for long. In the summer of 1960, Dr. Hand’s family had his body moved and reburied at the Garden Cemetery in Gardnerville, the town he had lived in and served for so many years.

If you visit, you can read his epitaph:

       “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Dr. Hand’s memorial plaque at the Garden Cemetery in Gardnerville.